About three blogs ago I wrote a piece on Arsene Wenger
and the alchemy of coaching players with varying skill levels until he has
maximised their potential, before adding a few top class players where needed
to complete the squad.
It’s the path he has chosen for Arsenal during the
austerity years; partly his own decision, partly due to circumstance. While
it’s of course perfectly fair to look at his system and pick holes in it since
that’s part of what football is all about, it’s only fair to do so from a
position of understanding. I’m not convinced he gets his fair share of this,
especially from football media.
Wenger seems to have developed a reputation for
being tactically rigid, predictable, and during particularly hysterical phases
in the recent Gooner past, crazy. Google ‘Wenger Out’ or ‘Wenger losing it’ and
you can read quite a number of hugely entertaining articles denigrating his
tactical choices, his transfer choices… pretty much every choice he’s made. It’s
been open season on the manager and his methods for a while now, and when you
look at his record you have to wonder if the extent and depth of the criticism
This is someone who has outperformed the entire
Premier League vs. spend since he arrived in the UK. He’s coach of the decade.
And his system is supposed to be inflexible and outdated.
My question: How can a manager take a team of youth
and inexperience out of the group stages of the Champions League every single
season for over a decade if he’s a poor tactician? The Champions League is the
pinnacle of tactical football. We’re minimum last 16. Every time. Usually we go
further. The Premier League also. A myriad of styles and formations. We beat
80% of teams and always outperform our spend. Every time. With (apparently)
poor signings, inexperience and players regularly played out of position.
If he’s a poor tactician AND clueless in the transfer market, then his
performance becomes even more incredible.
It just doesn’t add up.
I liken the difference between Wenger’s style of
management and most of his peers as similar to that between mechanical vs.
chemical engineering. Bear with me…
A mechanical engineer will design a machine
designed for a specific task. A good mechanical engineer may be able to design
machines for multi purpose…but once designed and built, that’s it. Each piece
is manipulated into place and fixed. If the machine is not performing as
required the engineer may: a. tune or replace parts if they’re obviously not
working well enough, or b. Re-design the machine. Changes in mechanics and
subsequent performance will usually come down to a combination of these two
A chemical engineer on the other hand, has a number
of ways to bind the same elements or compounds to produce completely different
results. To give an example, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide have very
different effects on the environment but are formed of the same two basic
elements, carbon and oxygen. The chemist mixes up the elements in various
combinations to his/her satisfaction, by controlling the environment in which
they are reacting in very measured, specific ways, and allowing them to do what
Whereas the genius in a mechanical engineering
approach is in the detail, for a chemical engineer, it’s in the way he controls
the environment. He doesn’t instruct the chemicals to perform in a certain
manner; he knows how they will react in certain situations, and so creates the
situations that are likely to bring about the reaction he’s looking for. His
ingredients perform as they do naturally.
Most managers in England are mechanical engineers.
Pundits, press journalists, bloggers and fans are more used to discussing the
mechanics of football. A tactical manager has traditionally been one that isn’t
scared to ring the changes early be it in formation or with personnel in order
to get a grip on a game.
Chemical engineers are extremely rare. Even
exponents of the modern footballing systems, both in the Premier League and on
the continent, often have their players following a long list of specific instructions.
That, for the purpose of this analogy, is more mechanical even if it is very
advanced. The more instruction you give, the more natural choice you remove.
This form of team preparation and management works at the highest levels under
world class coaches, so please don’t assume that I feel it is an inferior
style. It’s just not our manager’s style.
A number of past players have touched on the fact
that Wenger doesn’t burden his players with long lists of do’s and don’ts,
neither does he provide much information on the opposition, if any. He takes
that pressure off his players by thinking the game for them. They know the
patterns, they learn the cues, they learn how to move in relation to each
other. They have all the information and they understand his framework. With
the right personnel and understanding, this allows for greater spontaneity
which gives access to more solutions to opposition setups. He doesn’t tell the
team about the opposition because the opposition shouldn’t matter… the idea
is for us to impose our game.
The 4-2-3-1 standard setup is based more around our
defensive shape. When you watch closely during a game you can see that our
offensive formation is very loose. It’s not only 4-2-3-1, it is 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 4-4-1-1
and at times (usually late on in a game) it becomes 2-3-2-3 when the fullbacks
push up in line with Mikel Arteta.
The changes Arsene makes during the course of a
game are often extremely subtle, but they have a profound effect on both the
offensive and defensive phases. This is why we often end up with both
possession and territorial advantage. Even if we haven’t always been winning,
more often than not we find a way to impose our game. In fact a lot of teams
have learned not to even try going toe to toe with Arsenal for possession and territory
because as many a manager has said… it’s ‘suicidal.’ Chelsea, Manchester
City… these teams dominate the ball 90% of the time. Look at the value and
reputation of their squad. They rarely do that with us.
Now this isn’t to say that Wenger is tactically
perfect. Far from it, there are times when, like all managers, he makes errors
in judgement that negatively affect performance and results. But when we as
fans get frustrated with seeing Gervinho at centre forward and Aaron Ramsey out
on the right wing, although it’s easy to vent your frustrations at a style and
form of thinking that is unfamiliar and seldom explained, it’s worth
remembering a few things:
1. Every year since probably 2007, the performance
of the collective has been greater than the level of individual quality we had
available. Just look at the list of players departed. Cesc Fabregas and Robin van
Persie aside, who else has managed to play half as well as when they were at
When you remove the name ‘Arsenal’ from the
equation and take an objective look at the personnel… at the injuries, at the
age and maturity levels of recent Wenger sides as compared with the clubs we’ve
been up against…he’s overperformed. Every single year. We’ve been predicted
out if the top four year on year since 07/08 based on spend vs. our
competitors. He wasn’t spending money but managing to keep us up there. How? If
you hate his transfer work you have to respect his managerial skills. You
absolutely have to respect his ability to patch a team together and win games
against the very best.
2. We out-footballed Barca.
On that day we had (mostly) top quality players on
a run of form, that were comfortable with each other and the tactical framework
they were playing within. None of those players, Fabregas and possibly our full-backs
aside, were considered truly top class before that season began, it was the
alchemy that blended their respective talents together. It was the perfect
storm: We were disciplined defensively but expansive in attack. We found gaps
in an in-form, purring Barcelona side that, at that time, were unplayable. They
simply weren’t used to conceding shots on target.
3. We beat Bayern Munich. Again, best team in the world
at the time. A tacticaly inflexible manager would not have been able to
strangle the extremely flexible and multi-faceted Bayern threat… in fact
Wenger was the only manager to do so in 2013.
The philosophy is based, as he continuously reminds
us, on collective intelligence and cohesion. The way the last couple of seasons
have played out gives truth to that statement… we’ve started with
unfamiliar squads and taken until February to kick into gear before forcing our
way into the Champions League.
Continuity issues damage cohesion, and errors are
expected until they get it right. Over the years we’ve had little continuity,
and as a result we’ve made a number of high profile errors. Even this year…if
we’re honest, giving away 46% of conceded goals through lapses in concentration
is criminal on every level. The flip side of that…we were the second best
defensive team in the league last year, and the highest ranked defensive team
gave away a comparatively tiny percentage of their goals through error. We have
huge room for natural improvement without added defensive personnel, and that
statistic also tells us that the system should work… in fact if people didn’t
make mistakes it could be argued that we could cut our total goals conceded
almost in half. Teams rarely broke us down, we broke ourselves down and were
still second best overall.
Over the years the boss has seen many of his
original advantages erode, not least his previously advanced scouting network
and dietary/training knowledge. He’s had fewer edges on the opposition than
he’s ever had, since football has caught up with many of his cutting edge
In one area he very much remains ahead of the
Let’s be fair, if he’s been
setting his teams up the same way with less than world class players, for eight
years, and the going rate is currently £500m to surpass him in the Premier
League, he’s got to be doing something right don’t you think?